Ask Nepalis who are responsible for their government’s failures, and there’s probably going to be finger pointing at politicians. Probably at bureaucrats, too. A gaping problem, besides inept leaders, also lies in how little separated these two organs are: Nepal’s bureaucracy is frequently said to be one of the most politicized in South Asia, and this has molded a government riddled with inefficiency and nepotism.
The bureaucracy, tasked with shaping policies for practice, is a powerful organ—but its smooth operation comes with caveats. Two of those conditions, as Max Weber prescribed a century ago, are particularly relevant for Nepal. First, bureaucrats must be politically disinterested, and withhold from party affiliations. Second, they must be shielded from political maneuvers, to sever any dependency on politicians. Both these precautions ensure the civil service is an enduring fixture, working evenly through changing governments. But the impartiality of Nepali bureaucrats is repeatedly violated by civil servants, and their political supervisors.
It’s deeply concerning that many Nepali civil servants vault over a legal check to remain apolitical—that is, resist associating with parties and publicly showcasing political sentiments—by joining ideological unions. These groups commonly hold thinly veiled support for particular parties or subscribe to similar ideologies, and have been subsumed as sister organizations. Many members of the civil service are thus de facto party sympathizers, and are guided by these unofficial political affiliations rather than the indifference their jobs require, causing a conflict of interest. As champions of the opposition or minority parties underperform or sneer off their obligations, efficacy in government quickly plummets.
Also alarming is how officials at the crème of the bureaucratic order are often arm-twisted by politicians, who hold a tight rein over promotion. Whereas officers hurdle through lower ranks based on performance and seniority, the induction of Secretaries (bureaucratic heads of department) comes down to political wrangling.
Politicians frequently promise support for promotion in exchange for services—perhaps approval for unsolicited dealings or financially lucrative acts—to push an illicit agenda, according to a 2009 paper by former bureaucrat Rabindra Shakya. Acquiescence to this kind of pressure is likely to collect political patronage, and since appointment to higher positions often hinges on this backing, many senior civil servants feel inclined to warm up to their political bosses and yield to corruption, throwing out the ideal of an evenhanded bureaucracy along the way.
The 1992 Civil Service Act, which first enabled the government to cherry-pick Secretaries from the recommendations of a Promotion Committee, gives leeway for politicians to favor bureaucrats with political links. In fact, Secretaries are usually shuffled whenever a fresh administration clinches power, to keep “loyal” bureaucrats at hand, a testament to the degree of prevalent nepotism. Additionally, Shakya writes, downsizing efforts have carried disturbing political undertones, with neutral staff being fired first, and incompetent but unionized bureaucrats retained.
This all-but-patronage approach frustrates apolitical but high-performing officers, whose competence is ignored in lieu of lower performing colleagues willing to flex their connections. This trend is alarmingly common: Promotion lists, ranked by performance and seniority, show that upper-level bureaucrats were frequently passed up for promotion, while those from the bottom of the pile were raised. So the system delivers incompetence and slashes morale at the highest level of the civil service: It routinely elevates the pliable, keeping the experienced, competent, and honest at bay. In 2011, administration expert Bhimdev Bhatta bemoaned that “the norms, chains, and seniority criteria are gradually breaking.”
But this skewed relationship doesn’t stem from some sort of moral asphyxia in government—it’s the result of clumsy legislation. Politicians and bureaucrats have exploited lax rules, leaving both honest civil servants and the government worse off.
Politicians and bureaucrats exploit lax rules, leaving both honest civil servants and government worse off.
Despite constant exploitation of the system, attempts to reform the politician-bureaucrat interaction have been few and misdirected. Bureaucratic unionization and politicians’ undue influence on civil servants—the biggest problems with the system—haven’t been curtailed. This has to change. Four things are critical to forming a working bureaucracy in Nepal. First, promotions must be up to an external committee that’s shielded from political pressure. Second, civil servants should be barred from both direct association with political parties and indirect association through politically tinted organizations. Third, the duties of politicians and administrators must be clearly delineated and kept detached. And lastly, there needs to be more robust measures to penalize underperforming and corrupt bureaucrats.
How well these and other measures are put into place will determine whether Nepal’s “permanent government” will budge from an exhausting decades-long standstill. A lot of the institutional cracks in the bureaucracy are propped up by a political dynamic that doesn’t belong, and only progressive reform promises to remedy this. Perhaps with more structured modifications, the bureaucracy can finally depart from what a former civil servant famously called an institution that’s “competent, but nonperforming.”
The author is an undergraduate student of Government at Harvard University